April was the uncoolest month, but May has had its blue notes, too. I bumped into an old friend from The Expansion a couple days ago, and in the course of chatting I asked him about a neighbor of his—Wilson. That’d be Clay Wilson, or S. Clay Wilson, the underground cartoonist, famous for his tales in Zap Comix about animalistic bikers and, ahem, exceedingly well-hung pirates who settle all differences by using their cutlasses to remove each other’s engorged members in spurting gouts of gore. The happening local dive in my area when I moved to San Francisco was Dick’s, an unpretentious corner tavern renowned as the only straight bar in the Castro, and like The Expansion it was a cool and easy blend of old San Francisco characters (ancient mariners throwing down their PBRs as their asses fused to their barstools) and young hustlers (one guy mutated from an innocent farmboy to a minor Scarface in the short time I knew him). Wilson was in there most nights, holding court, or rather holding harangue, for anyone who cared to listen.
If you caught him before he had his ten too many, he was the ideal companion for what Sterling Hayden calls “an old-fashioned man-to-man drinking party” in The Long Goodbye (a Wilson favorite, incidentally). It’s easy to hang with even a really drunk guy if he’s well-read and into the arts, especially if he has an outsized personality, an old-fashioned code of honor, and a home that’s a museum of constantly rotating arcana. (His coffee table was an antique coffin.) I can’t say I cottoned much to the work that made him famous—the Checkered Demon lost its novelty value for me almost immediately, and it was maddening to see someone with so much talent recycling old material for the paychecks—but if he was miffed by the accolades thrown Crumb’s way after Zwigoff’s movie appeared, he didn’t respond by trying to make his work (always as pointedly gross as Crumb’s) more “relevant” in any kneejerk way, and in conversation he remained fixed on fresh material and new ideas. His hectoring, garrulous, exuberant ways put a lot of people off, but not me, at least not until one of us—usually, but not always, Wilson—had had too much to drink.
So I was more than sorry to hear of the brain injury he suffered after either being mugged or taking a fall around the corner from my house more than three years ago. (I knew I hadn’t seen him in a while but, damn, I had no idea it’d been that long.) And apparently he’s just recently taken a turn for the worse, which is even more fucked up. (His wife’s line in her blog—“It is terrible to be old and poor in America!”—just breaks my fucking heart.) This is not a situation I ever could have envisioned in 1983, nor wanted to. Warts and all, the man’s definitely one of the good guys.